Self-control, an aspect of inhibitory control, is the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior in the face of temptations and impulses. As an executive function, it is a cognitive process that is necessary for regulating one’s behavior in order to achieve specific goals.
A related concept in psychology is emotional self-regulation. Self-control is thought to be like a muscle. According to studies, self-regulation, whether emotional or behavioral, was proven to be a limited resource which functions like energy. In the short term, overuse of self-control will lead to depletion. However, in the long term, the use of self-control can strengthen and improve over time.
Self-control is also a key concept in the general theory of crime, a major theory in criminology. The theory was developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi in their book titled A General Theory of Crime, published in 1990. Gottfredson and Hirschi define self-control as the differential tendency of individuals to avoid criminal acts independent of the situations in which they find themselves. Individuals with low self-control tend to be impulsive, insensitive towards others, risk takers, short-sighted, and nonverbal. About 70% of the variance in questionnaire data operationalizing one construct of self-control had been found to be genetic.
Desire is an affectively charged motivation toward a certain object, person, or activity, but not limited to, that associated with pleasure or relief from displeasure. Desires vary in strength and duration. A desire becomes a temptation when it impacts or enters the individual’s area of self-control, if the behavior resulting from the desire conflicts with an individual’s values or other self-regulatory goals. A limitation to research on desire is the issue of individuals desiring different things. New research looked at what people desire in real world settings. Over one week, 7,827 self-reports of desires were collected and indicated significant differences in desire frequency and strength, degree of conflict between desires and other goals, and the likelihood of resisting desire and success of the resistance. The most common and strongly experienced desires are those related to bodily needs like eating, drinking, and sleeping.
Desires that conflict with overarching goals or values are known as temptations. Self-control dilemmas occur when long-term goals and values clash with short-term temptations. Counteractive Self-Control Theory states that when presented with such a dilemma, we lessen the significance of the instant rewards while momentarily increasing the importance of our overall values. When asked to rate the perceived appeal of different snacks before making a decision, people valued health bars over chocolate bars. However, when asked to do the rankings after having chosen a snack, there was no significant difference of appeal. Further, when college students completed a questionnaire prior to their course registration deadline, they ranked leisure activities as less important and enjoyable than when they filled out the survey after the deadline passed. The stronger and more available the temptation is, the harsher the devaluation will be.
One of the most common self-control dilemmas involves the desire for unhealthy or unneeded food consumption versus the desire to maintain long-term health. An indication of unneeded food could also be over expenditure on certain types of consumption such as eating away from home. Not knowing how much to spend, or overspending one’s budget on eating out can be a symptom of a lack of self control.
Experiment participants rated a new snack as significantly less healthy when it was described as very tasty compared to when they heard it was just slightly tasty. Without knowing anything else about a food, the mere suggestion of good taste triggers counteractive self-control and prompted them to devalue the temptation in the name of health. Further, when presented with the strong temptation of one large bowl of chips, participants both perceived the chips to be higher in calories and ate less of them than did participants who faced the weak temptation of three smaller chip bowls, even though both conditions represented the same amount of chips overall.
Weak temptations are falsely perceived to be less unhealthy, so self-control is not triggered and desirable actions are more often engaged in, supporting the counteractive self-control theory. Weak temptations present more of a challenge to overcome than strong temptations, because they appear less likely to compromise long-term values.
The decrease in an individual’s liking of and desire for a substance following repeated consumption of that substance is known as satiation. Satiation rates when eating depend on interactions of trait self-control and healthiness of the food.